The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent was Steinbeck’s final novel, and in a letter to Elizabeth Otis he remarked that he had “poured every ounce of energy” and “aging passion” that he had left into it. The story centers on the tale of Ethan Hawley, a disillusioned store clerk in a coastal New York town (modeled after Sag Harbor). Ethan resents his once-wealthy family’s low social standing but still desperately clings to strict moral standards. As his bitterness grows, however, Ethan succumbs to the forces of pride and greed, falling prey to the same type of dishonesty he previously condemned. Winter is allegorical in that it’s not just a tale of longing and self-realization; it’s a moral portrait of America.

Although Winter received generally favorable but not glowing reviews, the Nobel Prize committee stated that the novel elevated Steinbeck back to “his position as an independent expounder of the truth, with an unbiased instinct for what is genuinely American, be it good or bad.” It’s one of Steinbeck’s last calls to action for the American people – a fitting beginning to the end of his literary career.

Fun facts

Did you know? One of the most common criticisms leveraged against Winter is that the pet names Ethan reserves for wife Mary are cloying and saccharine. However, Steinbeck’s third wife Elaine recalled that he would use “all kinds of funny endearments” quite often to express his affection (Benson 873).


“No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself.” – John Steinbeck, Winter of Our Discontent

“It has been my experience to put aside a decision for future pondering. Then one day, fencing a piece of time to face the problem, I have found it already completed, solved, and the verdict taken. This must happen to everyone, but I have no way of knowing that.” – John Steinbeck, Winter of Our Discontent